Anti-racism on campus: Lessons from a more optimistic past

Part I: Combating racism in higher education in the 1960s

At the time I was hired at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (UW-Madison) in 1967, the institution regarded itself as a very progressive and liberal university. UW-Madison was proud of its many highly ranked departments, including sociology, economics, history and political science in the liberal arts.

As a new hire, not yet finished with my PhD dissertation, I was given a year off teaching on full pay to complete my dissertation. At the same time, as was the case for almost all new faculty members, I was assigned to a university committee my chairman thought would meet only once a year. Thus, it would not be a burden on my writing. I was to start teaching in the fall of 1968.

The committee I was assigned to, the Committee on Studies and Instructions in Race Relations (also called the Thiede Committee), ironically soon turned out to be one of the most active on campus.

The increased activity was in response to complaints from black graduate students about the lack of Afro-American faculty members; the limited number of black students; and the total lack of courses focused on black history, literature, music, politics and other areas.

The committee took these complaints seriously, meeting with the graduate students, focusing initially on ways to increase black faculty numbers and black students, as well as considering ways to introduce courses on black studies.

Yet, the fact was that in many ways, the discussion of these issues demonstrated that even a liberal-seeming university in the 1960s often operated in ways that furthered racism, even if this was unintended.

The experiences then, which were positive and marked by major progress on the UW-Madison campus – progress we thought would spread around the country – suggest why efforts to end racism in higher education nationally have been so difficult in the more than 50 years since then.

In spite of the recent successes of Black Lives Matter and other broadly supported efforts to end systemic and institutional racism, the challenges on campuses remain almost as difficult now as they were in the 1960s and are perhaps made more difficult by the internet and social media which have generated strong opposition to those efforts.

In many respects the important public realisation of institutionalised racism has made solving the problem more difficult as it has triggered a major negative response, and some state legislators have moved to outlaw teaching about institutional racism which they see hidden in the guise of “critical race theory” or “left-wing anti-Americanism”.

Black student protest in 1969 at UW-Madison

My assignment to the Committee on Studies and Instructions in Race Relations turned out to be a demanding and exciting experience. Our first meeting was organisational, laying out the problems of admission and recruitment of black faculty members and students. The committee focused initially on recruitment of black faculty.

Soon thereafter, several black graduate students requested a meeting with the committee to discuss a number of issues. As they pointed out, only three Afro-Americans served as faculty at that moment – one of whom was a visiting faculty member – and there were several other black faculty members from Africa.

The students felt that only the visiting faculty member focused on Afro-American issues, while the others, several much older, were suspicious of affirmative action. They claimed that they had made it the “hard way” and so should any other black faculty members, without any special initiatives in Afro-American recruitment.

At all these early meetings, I listened and remained silent.

The initial discussion focused on the difficulty in finding “really good” black faculty candidates with PhDs. As one chairperson put it: “We have to find people who are really good, with several publications so we will not have problems when they come up for tenure.”

I was dumbfounded at his comment and finally broke my silence to say: “That is actually quite racist. I was hired without even having finished my dissertation and with no publications. I was given the chance to succeed or fail. You must do the same for black hires. Otherwise, you are being racist.”

Silence filled the room and no one spoke for what seemed an eternity. Finally, one of the department chairs said: “You are correct. I never thought of that. Where do you think we should look? We have had little success from Harvard, Yale or Princeton.”

I replied: “You are searching in the wrong places. Only two black graduate students were in my class at Princeton, and one of them was in the military. Try the historically black colleges and universities which turn out hundreds of black graduates each year.”

Another of the committee members asked: “Are the PhD graduates of good quality?”

John Willis, the visiting black faculty member in history who had recently been added to the committee, said: “In my experience black graduates are like any other university graduates – some are outstanding, some are weak; the only way to find out is to interview them. I would start with the Atlanta colleges which have an excellent reputation.”

He added: “Three of the Atlanta universities in particular, all established in the late 1800s, are worth looking at. They are Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University. And don’t forget Howard University in Washington DC.” Someone else noted that the DC area would also be a good locale for recruiting black students.

We were now meeting weekly following pressure from the black graduate students in the fall of 1968. At one of the meetings, we discussed strategies to encourage a department on campus to offer the first course on Afro-American culture or history. Someone suggested getting the English department to offer a course on Afro-American literature. One of the department chairs was tasked with talking with the English department about that idea.

At the next meeting that department chair came back upset, telling us that the English department responded to our request by saying that no such thing as Afro-American literature or black literature existed. Most of us were stunned, naming off a number of distinguished black writers.

After a short discussion about this issue and approaches to force the English department to offer such a course (which, of course, could not be done at UW-Madison because of departmental autonomy and “faculty rights”), a committee member turned to John Willis and me and asked if the two of us could teach some such course.

We were surprised, noting that our specialties were African politics, in my case, and African history in his. However, John suggested that if we were provided with adequate funding, we could bring people in to lecture on a course which we would facilitate and oversee.

Vice-Chancellor Robert Atwell immediately said he could set aside US$20,000 for travel and fees for the speakers; more if needed. We agreed to put together a proposal to present at the next committee meeting.

Afro-American cultural and intellectual traditions

John and I went to my office and began to work on possible lecturers. John was much better informed than I was, being a black scholar.

He suggested we begin with his cousin, Toni Morrison, who had taught at Howard and was then working for Random House as a fiction editor. She was about to come out with her first major work, The Bluest Eye. She was largely unknown at that point. Fortunately for us, Toni Morrison agreed to teach the first two weeks of the course.

We then thought of Hoyt Fuller, the editor of Negro Digest; Edmund Gaither, in charge of the Afro-American art collection in Atlanta; Andrew Billingsley, vice-chancellor at UC Berkeley, an expert on the black church and black life; and Keith Baird, who had worked on black men in protest.

Though our list of presenters was not complete, the course was approved on the condition that we find additional lecturers to fill out the semester.

The Afro-American Cultural and Literary Tradition course garnered amazing student interest and succeeded far beyond our wildest dreams.

We were expecting about 30 students (there was no pre-registration for this course since it was added late). There were about 300 graduate and undergraduate students at that time. On the first day, we took our syllabi and headed for the assigned room in one of the lower floors of Van Hise Hall – a room big enough for about 40 students. As we were walking down to the room, we found the stairs and stairwell packed with students. One of the students from my Introduction to Comparative Politics course asked: “Professor Hayward, are we going to be able to get into your class?”

I said: “Yes, of course; but what are all these students doing here?” He replied: “They are here for your Afro-American Studies course.”

John and I worked our way through the crowd into the room, already packed with more than 50 students. We gave them a quick overview and readings for the first week (which we also put on the board since we had run out of hard copies of the syllabus) and then ran the next group of students through the venue until we had talked to all of them. Our next task was to locate a bigger room before the meeting of the first full class.

We had excellent cooperation from the UW-Madison library, which came to us for suggestions for buying appropriate books for the course, but also to build up a good collection of books related to Afro-Americans. We put together a starter list for them and added to it with suggestions from each of our lecturers.

That first class featured Toni Morrison. There were close to 400 students in attendance, with a large percentage of the enrolled black students (given the small number at UW-Madison!). The vast majority of students were white.

John and I introduced the course, passed out syllabi to all present, and then he introduced his cousin. She talked about problems of racism and about the book she was finishing, reading passages and often bringing tears to the eyes of many students.

Just before the final bell rang, she finished and was given a five-minute standing ovation – the first I have ever seen in response to an academic lecture.

The next class attracted at least 100 more people – nearly 500 in all. Not all were registered, but having heard about the first lecture, they came, with latecomers standing in the aisles.

We had reserved a nice hotel room near campus for Toni Morrison, but on most nights, she ate dinner with my wife and me. We relished the wonderful opportunity for all of us to talk about her kids, her teaching experiences at Howard, her work at Random House, her writing, my work in Africa, my wife’s work in sociology, and a host of other topics.

Over this period, we developed a close and wonderful relationship. Toni continued lecturing for two weeks to overflowing crowds. To everyone’s delight, we were able to announce that Toni had agreed to return for the final week of lectures.

The course continued to be a great success with Hoyt Fuller talking about the black press and the challenges of editing Negro Digest. Art specialist Edmund Gaither presented a wonderful illustrated series of lectures on black art, demonstrating its importance to the black community both as protest art and a reflection of black life, as well as its influence on US art in general and its importance to the country.

Black student demands for change

As the semester got underway, a group of black students concerned about the lack of Afro-American content, faculty and students put forward a set of 13 “non-negotiable demands”. They organised a strike starting on 10 February, declaring that all students should avoid classes, except for our course, the Afro-American Cultural and Intellectual Tradition.

Several thousand students responded to the strike. The students marched to the Capitol in Madison, with the black students leading the way. On the march back, to their annoyance, white radical students took over the lead as the marchers came closer to campus. As one black leader said at the rally which followed: “We can’t even lead our own parade without white students trying to take over. This is just another example of racism.”

The initial day of the strike was relatively peaceful, but soon some radicals started to break windows and burn trash. Given their small numbers, the campus police (who had been responsive, sympathetic and gentle, as long as there was no violence) had to call for reinforcements from the Madison police and state police.

The latter were largely unsympathetic and disliked the students – especially the black students – in spite of the small enrolment of black students on campus at this time.

The county police were mostly overweight and out of shape and could not chase the radicals causing trouble, so several pulled guns on the students. Fortunately, no one was shot. Fearing that someone would be shot, Chancellor Edwin Young phoned the state governor and asked him to call up the National Guard for the next day.

The governor agreed to call up a local Madison unit, knowing that, ironically, quite a few of the members would be students who had been demonstrating the day before. The guard arrived in large numbers on 12 February.

That morning, as I ate my breakfast, I was listening to the 7am news broadcast. During the programme, Chancellor Young was asked how he was going to negotiate with the black students on the “non-negotiable demands”. He replied that he would not be negotiating – the Hayward Committee would do so. I was dumbfounded. There was no Hayward Committee I was aware of!

My phone immediately started ringing from news organisations asking for a statement from me. I demurred, saying I was not prepared to talk at that point.

A few minutes later the chancellor called, apologising for not asking me to take on this role before he announced it. Of course, I said it was “OK”, but could we meet shortly to discuss the parameters and other members of the committee?

I drove to campus past at least 25 military trucks unloading uniformed National Guard troops carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. They were spreading out across the campus with about a dozen men in front of each building.

Meeting with the chancellor, he listed the other members of the committee – mostly department chairpersons – and one or two other faculty members familiar with black issues, including Michael Lipsky, a political scientist, and John Willis.

The chancellor told me that this subcommittee would have complete freedom to negotiate, but any agreement would have to be approved by the full committee on race relations, then his office.

However, he assured us of his full support and provided direct phone links to both the campus chief of police and the head of the National Guard, saying we could use them as we needed. The chancellor explained that the National Guard troops had no bullets in their guns, but asked that I not share that information with anyone else.

I was relieved. More than 1,000 students had demonstrated the day before. Against the wishes of the black student organisers, there was some violence by a few participants.

On the week of Lincoln’s birthday, we were fortunate to have Andrew Billingsley scheduled to lecture for 12 February. He was then vice-chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and had planned to lecture on Afro-American perceptions of Lincoln.

When some black student leaders in the class heard about his topic, they asked that the lecture be moved to the Student Union so more people could hear it. The black students wanted the class to walk together to the Student Union, but insisted that no police or National Guard troops stand in front of buildings, as they had, day and night, during this period.

I called the head of police and the military commander and told them the upcoming plans and asked them to move inside the building five minutes before the class was to start and remain there until after the students had passed.

As I walked to the class that evening, I was pleased to notice no police or National Guard anywhere in sight. The lecture in the union was a huge success, with at least 900 people in attendance including most of the UW black students; the rest consisted of students, most of them white, and some faculty members.

My committee held its first meeting and then met with representatives of the black students. The students presented their “13 non-negotiable demands” which included:

• Hiring at least 20 more black faculty members with student participation in the search and veto over the hiring;

• Admitting 500 more black students for the fall of 1969;

• Setting up a centre for black students with students in charge;

• Establishing a department of Afro-American studies with a black chairperson;

• Hiring a black co-director of Student Aid;

• Giving black students the power to hire and fire administrators and teachers who deal with anything affecting black students;

• An amnesty for students participating in the class boycotts and demonstrations;

• Full scholarships for black athletes; and

• Several other related demands.

Committee members listened to the justification for each of these demands, largely without comment except to ensure understanding, feeling they needed to let the students explain their goals without interruption.

I said that I thought that many of these requests could be worked out together with them, that we would discuss strategies as a committee and meet again the next day. As the strike continued, we met several times a day – almost every day.

The committee was badly divided on responding to the students’ demands. Some members thought, for example, that students could not be involved in hiring. Others suggested that we should not act at all until the demonstrations and violence stopped.

Several members reminded other members that in many departments, students participated in hiring, attending candidates’ presentations and letting the departmental chairperson or committee know their reactions to each candidate. While students could not make final decisions, their participation and input in the process was regarded as important to the final decision in those units.

This reality provided a good basis for discussion and perhaps agreement with the black students. Several other issues were easier to work out, including the black students’ cultural centre which had been discussed as an idea earlier by the full committee.

The issue of an Afro-American studies department was more difficult, spurring on divisions over whether this entity should be a department or a programme. Everyone fully agreed that one or the other should be established.

I offered to speak with the chancellor and vice-chancellor for finance about more centre funding and noted that we already had one black studies course – the one that John Willis and I already had underway. That course could serve as a building block for a department or programme.

Several other courses with some Afro-American content, though limited, were offered on campus, but neither the professors nor students thought they qualified as Afro-American-focused courses.

For that semester two visiting, non-permanent black professors taught while commuting to Madison. Professor Gwendolyn Brooks taught Creative Writing and Professor Darwin Turner Black Literature.

The administration was eager to deal with the cultural centre issue and provided five rooms in a building next to the central campus, as well as funding for a director. Suzanne Lipsky, a black administrator married to Michael Lipsky, was appointed as director.

In the meantime, the strike continued, with the National Guard all over campus preventing violence. The strike basically shut down most teaching in Letters and Science, with the exception of our course. Most classes in engineering and the sciences continued.

Working with students

Meeting with the student team, we reported agreement on the cultural centre and introduced them to Suzanne Lipsky. That space quickly became a centre of black student meetings. We added five black students to the subcommittee, although they preferred to serve as observers rather than voting members while participating actively in the discussions. The students were pleased with our quick response and we moved on to other issues.

We were in complete agreement about the need for an Afro-American studies department or an Afro-American programme. In the end, the committee agreed on a department since a programme could not hire and fire, establish new courses and-or oversee other programmes on their own.

We explained that students could participate in hiring, but decisions remained up to the faculty members. The students seemed to understand these conditions, but expressed clearly that this arrangement did not meet their demands.

While my colleagues in political science and African studies were supportive of our efforts, some in the community and further afield in Wisconsin saw this effort from a racist perspective.

Parts of the north of Wisconsin were noted for their racist and anti-Native American views and some people were often seen wearing T-shirts reading, “The only Good Indian is a Dead Indian”.

There were incidents of racist activity against a few new black faculty members, including a cross burning on the front lawn of one, and attacks on Iranian students (or anyone who looked like an Iranian) during the hostage crisis.

In my own case, I began to receive hostile phone calls warning: “I suggest you get out of town and go back to California or New Jersey.” The most alarming were life-threatening messages advising me that I was not safe if I kept kowtowing to black students.

Fortunately, I had strong support from students in general and most faculty members.

Committee members spent a lot of the meetings listening and explaining how the university worked, procedures for setting up new programmes and possible solutions. At this point we did not rule anything out. We worked first on ways to increase student numbers, then black faculty, a permanent black student centre and eventually all issues. Little by little, confidence grew between committee members and the students.

One day, while I was working in my office on the top (fourth) floor of North Hall, one of the original buildings on campus, I heard a knock on my door. I opened it to find eight black students asking to talk with me, several of whom were on the negotiating team.

I must say that my immediate thought was they had come to complain that the committee was moving too slowly. On the contrary, their leader said they had come to tell me how much they appreciated my efforts, that they had heard that I had received threats on my life, and they were prepared to protect me.

Another said: “If there is anyone you would like us to take care of, just let us know.” He then pulled back his jacket to reveal the shape of a pistol in his belt.

I said: “Thank you so very much for this support. I cannot think of anyone at the moment, but if I do, I will let you know.”

They replied that they would keep in touch and thanked me again. I thanked them for coming. They left quietly.

A few moments later, about five of my colleagues came rushing into my office thinking I might have been beaten up by these students. I thanked them for their concern and clarified that the students had come to thank me for my good work on their behalf, asking if there was anything they could do to assist me.

The press was all over the place, constantly seeking progress reports and wondering why we were not moving faster. Some were genuinely interested in the issues; others were hostile to black students; a few were just plain anti-university which made life difficult.

We could not say much to the press without losing respect from the black students involved.

All the threats were based on anger against any agreement with black students. In addition, a stunning 1,372 faculty members signed a petition to the chancellor asking that he not give in to any of the student demands. Most were faculty from science and engineering. We were taken aback by this behaviour.

Setting up the Black Studies Centre (initially known as the Centre for Afro-American and Race Relations) with Suzanne Lipsky had gone exceptionally well. Suzanne fostered a strong rapport with black students. We worked together to get the furniture and equipment needed.

The centre gave the black students a place to meet, discuss plans and try out ideas – often on Suzanne, who gave them good advice on strategy. She and I also took three black student leaders to a meeting on black studies in Atlanta, Georgia, at one of the historically black institutions. I worried about attending this event, thinking a black faculty member should go, but the black students wanted me to go.

The meetings in Atlanta were quite revealing about racism in many ways. We made hotel reservations in advance for all of us. When we arrived at the hotel, the receptionist said they had reservations only for me – not for Suzanne or the students. We found another hotel that would welcome all of us.

The meetings were useful, with many ideas we could use at UW-Madison. It was here that we met a number of especially remarkable people whom we could invite to campus, for example, Edmund Gaither, who agreed to be one of the visiting lecturers for the Afro-American studies course.

At one point while we were walking from the hotel to the meetings, I was harassed by a group of young black men. Our students defended me and succeeded in getting them to leave us alone. Suzanne was outstanding at the meetings. The five of us developed a close relationship which continued when we returned to UW-Madison.

Implementing actions

Implementing the agreement to increase the numbers of black students and black faculty was difficult. The larger committee stumbled at first, but then went to work looking more broadly and finding both students and some distinguished faculty members to hire. There were about 300 Black students in 1968. By 1974-75 there were 825 (2%) black students out of 36,915 students overall. By 2018-19 black students were 1,443 (3%), with student totals of 44,411.

Setting up the Afro-American studies department was an especially difficult task as approvals were required at many levels. The subcommittee laid out a draft for the department and sent it to the full Committee on Studies and Instructions on Race Relations. A heated debate ensued over whether to recommend a department or a programme. Dean David Cronon led the argument for a programme, while my subcommittee called for a department.

In the end, the faculty senate approved the plan for the department of Afro-American studies, with a majority external executive committee members until the department had five tenured faculty members – mainly to protect the assistant professors from being dependent on one or two faculty members for promotions, new courses and other activities.

Our proposal was approved by the faculty senate on 3 March for the fall of 1970.

I and several other faculty members active in integration efforts were appointed to the executive committee along with the only tenured member of the department. The department established its curriculum with a number of new courses and several other departments – including political science, sociology and history – added their own cross-listed courses.

While it had been a slow and difficult process, we eventually succeeded in meeting most of the student “demands” except their insistence that black students approve hiring, tenure and other decisions that affected them.

Once the students accepted that these functions were not possible, we made progress in the other areas.

With the establishment of the student centre and Afro-American studies department, channels for black student and faculty input in formal settings now existed and the campus returned to near normal. We continued to make progress.

The State of Wisconsin provided scholarship funds for minority students, while the university had moved to ensure that black student athletes were supported, taking substantial courses and meeting university requirements, including the language requirement.

Indeed, the grade point averages of all student athletes were higher than the campus average, in part because students having problems received tutoring – as they should have had all along, given the many hours of practice they were required to undertake each day plus frequent travel to games.

In short order, most of the campus was behind these efforts. The Afro-American studies department was flourishing with five tenured faculty members, its courses were filled with both black and white students, and the Afro-American Centre was operating with many programmes of interest to black and other students. UW-Madison had undertaken a major effort to become multiracial and was succeeding.

Those of us involved in the process on the subcommittee and the full Thiede Committee believed that not only was this liberal university transformed in keeping with its goals, but that these successes would help transform racial attitudes in the state of Wisconsin, at other universities, and perhaps beyond.

Part II: Combating racism in higher education in the 2020s

In the context of the recent massive support for Black Lives Matter following a number of racial killings in various parts of the United States – killings which continue – I have reflected on our initiatives at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the1960s.

Sadly, what strikes me is the overall lack of true progress in reducing racism in higher education – not only in Wisconsin, but in the United States as a whole.

For example, in Wisconsin recently, two teachers asked students to write an assignment about ways to punish slaves who were not following orders. That assignment elicited complaints from some parents, was deleted and the teachers put on leave – but the fact that the incident happened at all is shocking.

More broadly, nationally, 47 states have recently introduced legislation to reduce voting access – clearly aimed at restricting voting opportunities for minority citizens. Nationally, little real progress is evident in reducing institutional racism in housing, schools, medical care and especially jobs.

In addition, since 1988, US public schools have become more, not less, segregated.

The recent finding that the National Football League has been treating football players with head injuries differently by race, with less funding for injured black football players than white players with the same injuries, is alarming. While the NFL says it will eliminate the disparity, this practice has been going on for years, yet another indication of institutional racism in the US.

Another example is the history of running new highways through predominantly black and minority housing and businesses. A recently released study suggests that “…in recent years, attitudes on race have shifted and deepened”. And I could go on.

There have been some successes. The years 2020-21 have seen greater recognition by the white population of racism and the phenomenal damage it is responsible for in terms of the lack of equal access to jobs, police brutality, inequities in healthcare and housing, and the consequent damage to the well-being of minorities as well as to the US economy.

The percentage of Americans with the belief that the inequities of race were caused by “lack of will” of Afro-Americans declined from 50% in 2008 to 35% in 2018 – still an outrageous number.

On the other hand, the percentage of people attributing the inequality between blacks and whites to lack of ability, or lack of will or motivation, has declined significantly since the 1990s to about 10% in the former case and 50% in the latter, with views nearly equal between blacks and whites (with the latter only 3% to 5% higher).

The question is whether or not this increased understanding of the facts of racism by white Americans will result in policies and actions which address these problems.

The growing backlash against justice for minorities and efforts to prevent discussion of systemic racism and its history in the US in education classes – in the name of preventing the teaching of “critical race theory”, which is basically a discussion of institutional racism today and in the past – makes me pessimistic about our ability to solve the problem of racism anytime in the near future.

Misplaced optimism?

Why were we so wrong in our optimism in the 1960s? Why has opposition to equality seemed to harden over the past 50 years? In part I think we overestimated our successes at UW-Madison, their broader impact and the direction of change in the US generally.

In one sense the initiatives at the university were transformational. In another, beyond the original struggle to make these changes happen, what transpired after that, in retrospect, had a limited impact on the campus in the long run. The effect of the additional 500 Afro-American students in the 1960s on the 40,000 students on campus was minimal and the dozen new faculty members were mostly in the Afro-American studies department or the social sciences and humanities.

One example of the limited impact of the changes was demonstrated in the actions of some of the departments with joint appointments with Afro-American Studies.

Instead of showing their support for these new black faculty members, they gave them zero or low annual raises in a 10%-increase year. They anticipated that the dean would not allow that situation to prevail and would match what the Afro-American studies department had given the faculty (14% in one case) out of his pool of funds for special needs or outstanding service.

However, their strategy did not work since in the dean’s office we told these departments that they would have to match the other raises out of their own money or lose all of it. Their actions were hardly a demonstration of support for the integration of Afro-American studies on campus.

Added to that lack of financial support was the letter referred to earlier, signed by 1,372 of the more than 2,000 faculty members in February 1969 to the chancellor, asking him to ignore or deny black student demands.

While not completely a demonstration of opposition to the potential new policies, this letter illustrated the fear of demonstrations, of black students and a general resistance to change.

While faculty members like to think they are on the cutting edge of change, in reality they are generally extremely conservative when it comes to innovation.

Those of us on the Thiede Committee, and my committee involved in the change process, chose to ignore the reality and racism of that letter in celebrating our successes which did come with strong support from the faculty senate and administration. That was a mistake.

Perhaps these realisations should not be surprising, looking back at how children, even today, are brought up with all the symbols of racism. At an all-white school (which is the case for most young white students), who are the janitors, cleaners and cafeteria staff? For the most part they are people of colour.

Even in businesses, minority hires are usually at the bottom of the totem pole, seldom able to rise to high-ranking positions. What message does this send to white students growing up in school – and, to some extent, to their black and brown colleagues?

Oklahoma and several other states have recently passed legislation to outlaw discussion of racism in schools and Texas is considering similar legislation. At some institutions in Texas, students are told that racism is not, and never was, a reality – that slavery was an economic issue, not one of discrimination and bondage.

While these experiences may not result in overt racism, they do create and affect subtle and often subconscious views of race and help support existing institutional racism.

We are also suffering from a lack of public participation in general in local, regional, and national policy-making. An excellent recent book by Kathleen Staudt clearly demonstrates the lack of links between higher education and local civic organisations and the very limited role of faculty members in such activity. It is partly this lack of civic engagement that limits our understanding of the effects of institutional racism.

Beyond Black Lives Matter

Will the current support for Black Lives Matter and efforts to deal with systemic racism by the new Biden administration lead to an undoing of some of the structures of racism?

While I am somewhat hopeful, I recall that in the 1960s we thought our successes in Madison would be the beginning of both a local and nationwide awakening to racism in higher education, and perhaps elsewhere, and that by dealing with these issues sincerely and openly, others would follow our lead.

There have been improvements at some higher education institutions in terms of attitudes and policies, access for minorities and courses on black and Hispanic issues. We have also seen positive moves to deal with racial issues in some cities such as Berkeley, California; Ithaca, New York; and Baltimore, Maryland; yet this is nowhere near to the extent we expected.

In some cases, we seem to be moving backwards – parts of the South in particular are witnessing a strong resurgence of racism and assertions of white supremacy. Why were we so wrong in expecting greater progress in ending or reducing racism nationally and locally?

In part, we underestimated the power of racist traditions and the depth of institutional racism – which the white majority did not understand then and most still do not seem to understand or accept as real.

The stark, deeply embedded realities of racism have been brilliantly explored in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, a book in which she gives a blunt and quite accurate picture of continuing racism, comparing it to India’s caste system from which one can never escape. She explicates why and how that is the case with racism in the US as well.

Caste provides a sobering and chilling assessment of the current situation in the US, amplified and strongly supported by historic and current examples of the almost impenetrable barriers of race.

In her epilogue, Wilkerson points out the tragic costs of racism and caste: “Whatever creativity or brilliance they [those killed and oppressed] had has been lost for all time. Where would we be as a species had the millions of targets of these caste systems been permitted to live out their dreams or live at all? Where would the planet be had the putative beneficiaries been freed of the illusions that imprisoned them, too, had they directed their energies toward solutions for all of humanity, cures for cancer and hunger and the existential threat of climate change, rather than division?”

There have been some improvements over the years, including the Supreme Court decision in May 1954 outlawing legally mandated racial segregation in public schools in Brown versus the Board of Education, and in 1956, in Browder versus Gayle, and the striking down of segregation on city buses in Alabama with nationwide impact.

There was also some progress in higher education, reflected in attempts to improve equality in admissions, hiring and promotions on a national scale.

Nonetheless, the results have been limited and are hotly contested in many states and localities to this day. Opponents of these efforts at exploring the country’s history of inequality and discussions of racism see such initiatives as attempts to indoctrinate, not provide education, to divide us or to make white students feel guilty about actions they did not undertake.

Indeed, racism was so embedded in US culture that many white people did not see it as a problem during my tenure at Wisconsin; far too many still do not today, as we see in the efforts of many states to curtail voting by minorities and admissions to higher education institutions and efforts to limit funding to black schools.

One study shows that over six decades, the historically black institution Tennessee State University (TSU) had been “short-changed by as much as US$544 million by the state failing to live up to its responsibilities to one of Tennessee’s two land grant universities”. TSU has suffered from lack of infrastructure and upkeep as a consequence.


While the level of understanding of racism, at least among the younger generation, may be greater now, given their broad national support for Black Lives Matter and the presence of so much discussion of the issues, the focus on institutional racism in particular has also generated tremendous backlash in large parts of the US. We see that in what have become major efforts to stop “critical race theory” in 16 states by June 2021, including places such as Oklahoma, Florida and Texas.

All this pushback demonstrates major moves against efforts at fostering equality – efforts which could have a much broader effect than did resistance to our struggles in the 1960s.

While our small efforts at UW-Madison had some effect beyond the Madison campus, especially at other Wisconsin higher education institutions, many universities today are still at the same point as UW-Madison in the 1960s and continue to fail to deal with racism effectively.

Alternatively, a number of universities, such as those in the University of California system, Yale University, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, have seen substantial success and developed top-rated Afro-American programmes and required courses which attempt to broaden student understanding of institutional racism in the US.

Currently in the United States, more than 20 Afro-American programmes and departments and more than 48 Afro-American studies majors exist at higher education institutions. The number of black students in higher education increased by over 73% in the years from 2000 to 2010.

Nonetheless, overall progress has been limited. In 2019 the percentage of black students achieving a bachelor degree or higher was 29% (up 11% from 2000) in contrast to white students which increased by 45%. On the other hand, black enrolments in higher education decreased by 21% between 2010 and 2018, down from 2.7 million to 2.1 million students – in part, I think, because of the growing lack of concern about racism in higher education, and funding for black students and historically black institutions.

Hopefully, the breadth and international response to the Black Lives Matter endeavour and greater media coverage of racism will impact policy. We now have a US president who has experience with the issues, but the problems are extensive and deeply embedded.

Unintended racism is so widespread that even though recognition of the issues has improved, building on the limited progress to date is proving to be difficult, especially in the US Senate.

I fear that in the not-too-distant future the lessons that seem to have been learned in 2020-21 will be forgotten once again unless education institutions at all levels, along with help from non-governmental organisations and the public, make greater progress in ending institutional racism, take a stronger stand against racism, and use their networks and expertise to influence local and national policy.

After all, it is not just attitudes that need to change; policies nationwide also foster institutional racism. These changes are going to be particularly hard for primary and secondary education if state legislatures continue to outlaw the discussion of historic and systemic institutional racism, with some districts threatening fines for teachers who do so.

The role of universities

Universities, on the other hand, are unique. Institutions of higher education have a pool of talent that can publicly make the case for major changes on campus and in public policy to help foster equal opportunities and progress in ending institutional racism.

Such an endeavour would require a major effort to review their own curricula and policies to ensure that they are not acting in ways, even unintended, that foster and support racism.

For most institutions, that means greater commitment to recruiting black students and faculty members, more scholarships for minority students who have much higher rates of student loan debt than their white colleagues, and more emphasis on the history of racism in the US, as well as to suggest actions that can be taken to end it.

Universities must confront the fear of change and bring an end to attitudinal as well as institutional racism.

In addition, higher education organisations such as the American Council on Education, which has worked for years to eliminate racism, must do an even more aggressive job of lobbying Congress to redress institutional racism and encourage the provision of more funding for underserved minorities and approve policies that limit racism.

Higher education institutions will also need to strongly confront the anti-intellectualism affecting university policy and activity locally and nationally.

Such efforts will require great tact. They will require recognition that just because we say something should happen, desired changes will not result unless we demonstrate why those changes are important, that we have undertaken reasonable steps for these changes ourselves and implement them on our own campuses.

Part of the success on other campuses such as UC Berkeley in California was the effect of the anti-racist policies that took place on the UC Berkeley campus and in the community in the 1950s and 1960s. As we have seen, breaking down institutional racism can be achieved when major efforts are made to realise it. If we put our best minds to work on solutions to the overall problems of racism, we can make substantial progress in reducing, and in the long run ending, racism.

The current hostility of many legislators toward equality, their support of racism and efforts to curtail voting rights for minorities as well as the way they ignore and sometimes deny the reality of US discriminatory history, make it difficult to foresee the passage of essential legislation needed at this time to begin to break down current institutional racism and move towards equality.

Indeed, as noted above, the reverse seems to be happening in too many states. If that continues, racist attitudes and policies will not disappear nationally any time soon.

The efforts by some in Congress to try to deal with racism are encouraging, though the opposition to them is substantial. While I am somewhat optimistic that legislative improvements and protections for minority populations will be passed, especially if higher education institutions push for protections for minorities, I fear these efforts will not go far in alleviating the problems unless there is a major push nationally which includes policy changes.

From changing attitudes to taking action

A key is changing attitudes which foster racism; another is creating policies which prevent it.

Nonetheless, changing attitudes and policies are unlikely to happen until we are able to persuade policy-makers that ending institutional racism is essential to future economic growth and social justice, as well as to understanding how badly our national values are being damaged by US institutional racism – creating stark differences in healthcare, wealth, housing, policing and in other areas, which the recent COVID crisis has only made worse.

Indeed, I am struck by the view of Professor Derrick Bell, who is considered the originator of critical race theory, that even the many wins against racism since the 1960s have been reversed, had little long-term effect and often did more to foster greater white racism, including the election of Barack Obama.

He noted: “We can recognise this campaign [Obama] as a significant moment like the civil rights protests, the 1963 March for Jobs and Justice in DC, the Brown decision, so many more great moments that in retrospect promised much and, in the end, signified nothing except that the hostility and alienation toward black people continues in forms that frustrate thoughtful blacks and place the country even closer to premature demise.”

On reviewing his own writing and that of others, Bell suggests great caution in celebrating what we have seen as progress against racism and encourages us to look at the gigantic hurdles that make progress against racism extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible.

While we have made some progress against racism in the last 50 years, as Wilkerson and Bell emphasise, the structure of racism is so deeply embedded in US institutions, laws, traditions and values that it is almost impossible to eliminate. Even beginning to change the huge impediments to equality will be a major effort.

Thinking back to our experience in the 1960s, and our celebrations of successes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I am now struck by our misguided optimism then, how we underestimated the depth of racism, the institutional hurdles that are almost impossible to break down, the strength of a commitment to white privilege and our expectation that good people would see the damage physically, economically and in terms of our moral principles, if only they were made aware of them. We were wrong.

Looking back on that now helps us understand how deep-seated racism is in the United States, how limited the progress has been in overcoming it in the last 50 years and that a much more concerted effort is needed to end racism in the United States if we are ever to move towards ideals of justice and equality for all. We shall see.

Dr Fred Hayward was a senior higher education consultant at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, United States. A specialist in higher education and comparative politics focusing particularly on the developing world, he has worked in 15 countries on higher education with ministries, NGOs and higher education institutions and, until recently, was working in Afghanistan with the Ministry of Higher Education as part of the University Support and Workforce Development Program.